Thursday, October 6, 2016

Frustrated with Trying to Find What Works in K12?

Let’s Ask Instead: What DOESN’T Work? — Why? It Can Lead Us To What DOES WORK!

(Note: this is a reprint of a recent blog I authored with my co-Editor, Dale Lafrenz, for Real Experiences at Life. It's on a topic that many of your readers may find interesting and helpful).

unknown-1Your Blogmeisters were both math teachers who cut our teeth and sharpened our pencils and chalk-nubs in the early 60′s. EdTech and EdReform were just beginning to come up on our national radar. When then President Kennedy made his famous, “Ask Not…” inaugural speech, we took him at his word. We both set about trying to find ways for more kids to learn more. We actually made it our own motto, but we took different paths to find those answers.
We and RE@L are still looking for and trying out what works best. In one way or another, we are still trying to spread the good ideas and learning resources that actually help more kids learn more.
Here’s Dale’s and Tom’s short stories:
imagesWe were both young teachers  frustrated with the nonsense of grouping kids by age in classrooms, instead of grouping by their needs. Kids differ greatly in the way they learn. To ask a teacher to meet the individual needs of 30 kids, just didn’t make sense back then. It still doesn’t.
We both knew hands-on learning was a better way to learn, so Dale hauled old car tires into his classroom so kids could measure them. He wanted them to learn that in all circular objects, even tires, the distance around divided by the distance across is π, or 3.14+. It really helped all the kids “get it” and it didn’t come from a textbook and soon forgotten. We’d bet they still remember π to this day!
Tom & Students Programming
CAMP TextTom found that if students made their own flowcharts on how to divide fractions, then wrote a computer program to “teach the computer” to do it, they had a significantly better understanding of how to divide numbers like ½ by 1/3. Amazing how quickly students “got it” when they did their own getting and were able to “instruct” a computer to find the answer. If you can “teach” a computer to do something, you understand it.
In search of more and better answers, we each earned graduate degrees, which left us with more good questions than good answers. Actually, we do need more good questions if we want better answers. The thousands of questions about learning we ask these days, and the huge amount of funding we spend on looking for answers, is misdirected and, largely a waste of time and money.

On the “What Doesn’t Work Well Enough” viewpoint,  here’s what passes today for so-called well-planned projects, initiatives, research, feedback and policy-making:

  • A hundred thousand Apps for K12 classroomsfew of which cause any positive, lasting change in better learning, resources and the effective management thereof.
  • Mobile devices for every kid in every classroom, and NO comprehensive, effective plans, including staff training.
  • Over half a billion $$ being spent by our federal government on “Racing to the Top” and competitions such as I-3 that benefit very few.
  • More billions being spent on standardized testing that does not improve student performance differences, shown to be largely worthless, excepting the testing moguls.
  • Significant grants of another ½ billion $$ from well-meaning foundations to K12 organizations and to higher-ed policy-making institutions that are insulated from K12 representation. Who best knows what doesn’t work than our teachers and school administrators, including the customers: our students and parents?

Here’s a list of several of the top private funding foundations; 

click on their graphics below for more information: 

Acknowledging their well-meaning intent, we submit that these funds could be far better spent. With all their time, money and effort, there is little or no evidence that K12 learning is significantly better for our learners. Plainly put, there are no significant differences. There has been little systemic change. But, there are some hints and even some answers, if we take the time to look.

So, what does work?

One of our graduate school professors dropped this “nugget” on us years ago (and we paraphrase): “Instead of doing research,and teasing out what works best, why not load up all the promising practices you can find, and see if that makes a difference. If it does, tweak it and tease it to work better for the kids you serve.”
bushWe at RE@L want to cite our own local Bush Foundation for their many, successful efforts to fund reform in local educational communities and support leadership training for local educators. When the renowned Saturn School of Tomorrow was launched back in 1987, The Bush Foundation funded the entire evaluation and assessment to the tune of $100,000. It clearly showed to other practioners what worked and what still needed working on. The results are still accessible to those who want to learn what worked and what didn’t.
One of RE@L’s leaders, early in his educational career, received funding from Bush to attend a promising post-secondary program in his southwestern MN community. He went on to become a significant leader in EdTech reform at MECC, and now at RE@L.
Recently, Bush announced a large grant to Yellow Medicine East Schools for a new STEM initiative. Bush is busy changing our local school communities for the better. The Bush Foundation truly addresses the needs of their local community.
imagesAnother of our RE@L staff played a major role in the launching of the New Tech Network in Napa, CA. The school featured a sound, effective project-based learning program and has been adopted by over 80 schools across the country. Other PBL schools, many of which are also STEM schools are springing up everywhere.
RE@L is playing a major role in developing both PBL software for learners and resources to help teachers teach it effectively, the same program that MECC used for many years. Our RE@L colleague and contributor, Bob Pearlman, maintains a website that includes the most recent best practices and strategies for school reform (click on his name for more information on PBL and more).
unknown-4Lastly, we want to cite the Minnetonka (MN) Teacher Grants program. Under the direction of Assistant Superintendentt Eric Schneider, small but powerful grants are made to teachers and teams with good ideas on how to improve the effectiveness of learning in their classrooms. Many other schools and districts offer mini-grants to staff for their exemplary proposals. Virtually all of them require a reporting back of what worked and what needed working on. These programs empower teachers and their inventive ideas.
unknown-6Minnetonka also has an exemplary, cooperative program called Vantage.They work closely with businesses in their community to offer real-world, on-the-job training to students while still in school. Many students from this program become new hires from the businesses where they studied and interned.
Yes, this also happens frequently at the college level. It needs to happen even more at the high-school level, so that the skills learned are relevant to careers in the real world.
unknown-3RE@L believes that what K12 needs are more “feedback loops” that better inform what we is being done to improve the learning loop: Vision, Plan, Implement, Observe,  Measure, Report, Re-Up! It’s a process that keeps on getting better. There’s never a failure….only more learning about what works and what doesn’t.
There are many more examples that mirror JFK’s call for our own efforts of betterment. RE@L plans future blogs that still need to be told.
Maybe you have an instructive story about reform you’d like to tell. If you do, email us below. We’d be glad to help you help others looking for better answers on how “more kids can learn more.”
We are, all of us, more able to make changes for the better than any one of us. 
Please email your ideas, suggestions, comments or questions to:

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